CN Fire Rangers operate under minimal budget
9/14/2012 8:31:39 AM
 
Cherokee Nation Fire Rangers crew chief David Comingdeer checks a truck before his crew leaves the Tribal Complex in Tahlequah, Okla., to protect tribal lands from wildfire in this 2010 photo.  JAMI CUSTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
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Cherokee Nation Fire Rangers crew chief David Comingdeer checks a truck before his crew leaves the Tribal Complex in Tahlequah, Okla., to protect tribal lands from wildfire in this 2010 photo. JAMI CUSTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
BY KEVIN SCRAPPER Reporter TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - From January to September, the Cherokee Nation Fire Rangers responded to 157 fires within the tribe’s jurisdiction. But as the number of fires remain consistent with previous years, the Fire Rangers crew is down to a fraction of its previous workforce. “Three years ago, I had about 10 to 12 men that I could work six to eight months out of the year, to put out these 200 to 300 fires that we have,” Fire Rangers crew chief David Comingdeer said. “Due to cuts and the lack of support to my department, next Tuesday (Sept. 4) we’ll be down to four firefighters and the same amount of fires to fight.” The Fire Rangers are extensively trained and held to a higher standard than other firefighters in the area, Comingdeer said. “We are the only federally qualified wild land firefighters in the Cherokee Nation,” he said. “We have lots of volunteer fire departments and lots of city fire departments, but none of them are federally qualified or equipped to fight wild land fire in the Cherokee Nation. They’re state-qualified, state-certified, not federal.” Comingdeer added that he’s the program’s only full-time CN employee. The Bureau of Indian Affairs employs the other three members, but Comingdeer said it would be beneficial for the tribe to hire the men full time. “We’ve tried to get them that way, to have Cherokee Nation hire these men to work here permanently. So far we haven’t had any luck doing that,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s budget restraints. I just don’t think that the right people have found out.” Natural Resources Director Pat Gwin said federal funds allocated to the program have been cut in previous years. “We used to get a far greater amount from the BIA,” said Gwin. “Our funding level has dropped from about $172,000 to the $56,000 that it is now. We are only able to conduct actual fire suppression activities upon the instruction and oversight of the bureau.” Staffing is not the only problem the Fire Rangers face. Comingdeer said the program’s budget doesn’t include maintenance expenses for equipment or an operating base. “It’s very difficult to fight fire the way we do because we don’t have a headquarters. We don’t have a building. We don’t have a place to park our equipment,” said Comingdeer. “Our equipment sits out in the heat and freezing cold all year long. Yet during fire season there is a big demand for us to perform at a federal level, with substandard funding.” Gwin acknowledged that a building would be welcome, but again stated that funds aren’t’ there. “It’s a non-tribal priority allocation program,” he said. “A lot of the money that the bureau dolls out in the annual funding agreement is called TPA, which means we have a certain amount of leeway as to how we can spend that. The preparedness fund, it comes down as a very specific line item. It says, you will maintain this truck, you will maintain an employee.” Comingdeer also said the department’s importance is often overlooked, at least until it’s needed. However, Gwin said the tribe and non-tribal firefighters appreciate the Fire Rangers. Oklahoma Forestry crew chief Dale Winkler said the Fire Rangers play a vital role in protecting tribal wild lands. “I’ve worked with David as far as fighting wild land fires and they’ve been very helpful,” he said. “They help protect and preserve our wild lands, our forests out here and also the houses that surround them.” Winkler said the amount of crew hands in which the Fire Rangers employ is much smaller than the crews he is accustomed to working with, particularly for the rapidly approaching fall fire season. He said his concern is for local communities, particularly in rural areas, because fires caused evacuations in Oklahoma during the summer. “We could have another Luther or Drumright fire right here in Adair County or Cherokee County or Sequoyah County,” said Winkler. “In the Bell, Cave Springs and Lyon Switch areas we’ve got a lot of tribal homes there. They’re not easy to get to.”

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